Rikers Island inmates performing adult burials on Hart Island. Photograph by Joel Sternfeld via The Hart Island Project
After our recent coverage of Hart Island when the news surfaced that the abandoned burial ground may be turned into a city park, Untapped reader Mike Lozito reached out to us with the following message:
Great article and coverage on Hart Island. I lived there from 1972-1974 in Phoenix house rehab. program. I was 15 years old. It’s very eerie to see images of the island now in such shambles, it was really nice and well kept then.
We were of course intrigued, and Mike agreed to give us further details to feed our curiosity regarding the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.
The top photo, Mike tells us, “shows the front part of building ‘Phoenix 5’ where i was housed for about 1 year.” In the messages he described a Hard Island that was very different from the abandoned cemetery we see today. It was a center for removed citizens, often taking drug rehabilitation as an alternative for hard jail time. At age 15 when Lozito arrived he was “sent to ‘induction,’ a large facility where you are issued surplus navy jeans and blue work shirts. Much of the culture there was based on military practices and as such had a very regimented structure.”
Mike continues the story of his experience there with the acquaintance of a Puerto Rican ex-drug addict who shows him the ropes in the facility. He describes, “[George] was missing his pinky finger from a drug deal gone wrong. I remember how uncomfortable I felt shaking his hand.”
Many of the pictures like this one come alive when placed side by side with the testimony Lozito gives. He describes the agony of heroin addicts on these beds who were “in the fetal position, shivering and moaning.” Phoenix House where he stayed was drug free, and all the addicts had to “kick” cold turkey.
Out of all the residents on the island at this time, only about 20 were like Mike who actually volunteered themselves into the program and were not court-mandated.
As we covered before, Melinda Hunt and The Hart Island Project are dedicated to making Hart Island visible and accessible, “so that no one is omitted from history.” They are one of the major proponents for converting the forgotten island (that doesn’t even show up on NYC Subway Maps) into a viable park for all to use.